After a comfortable win over Middle Tennessee last week, Shea Patterson sat at the podium fielding questions. He seemed anything but comfortable as he got candid with reporters.
“A win’s a win,” the senior quarterback said then. “But I think everybody in that locker room knows that we didn’t live up to our standards and I put that on me. I gotta take care of the football. We got the W but we just gotta play better. I gotta play better.”
Patterson wasn’t available a week later, after the Michigan football team’s 24-21 win over Army in double overtime Saturday. But his words echoed through the press conference nonetheless.
I gotta take care of the football.
Because a week after Patterson fumbled on the first drive, leading to easy Blue Raider points, he did the same exact thing, leading to easy Black Knight points. This time, on first down at the Army 43, Patterson dropped back to pass. The rushers came. He couldn’t escape and let the ball go. It squirted out of his arms and off to the side as a Black Knight fell on it. Five minutes later, Army had a 7-0 lead.
The Wolverines got the ball back and scored a touchdown. They kicked off and Army fumbled in its own territory. Michigan had the ball and a chance.
Then, the Black Knights brought a blitz. Sophomore running back Christian Turner couldn’t see it coming. They came for Patterson and sacked him again. The ball came out. Army had it.
“You can’t get that loose with the ball,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “The first one was (Patterson’s) and the second one was the missed protection with the running back.”
As if that weren’t enough, the Wolverines lost another fumble on their very next drive, when sophomore running back Ben Van Sumeren lost the ball before being brought down. The Black Knights got the ball at Michigan’s 40 and scored a touchdown then, too.
Three giveaways on three straight drives is never a good thing, but against Army and its clock-draining triple option — designed to limit possession — it was almost fatal. The Wolverines had squandered three vital opportunities and gifted the Black Knights 14 points.
“I’d love to get three turnovers every half,” said Army coach Jeff Monken. “We’d probably not lose a game again.”
A damning statement from the 20-point underdog.
To his credit, Patterson didn’t get down on himself after that. He had one of the loudest voices in the huddle, telling everyone it was going to be alright.
Eventually, it was. But it took double overtime and — ironically — a strip sack on the final play that the Wolverines recovered.
After the game, the players were happy with the way they’d fought back. They didn’t have any turnovers in the second half, and the defense did its job. No one pointed fingers. They stuck together, determined to win it. But even then, it wasn’t satisfying.
“It was frustrating,” said junior defensive end Kwity Paye. “ … We should’ve played better.”
That’s two weeks in a row a player has said those words. Sure, a win’s a win, but at some point it becomes more a question.
When Paye and sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson went after Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. on third-and-11 in double overtime and stripped the ball out, it was a sort of cathartic release, the ball security issues the Black Knights took advantage of all day coming back to haunt them. Hutchinson brought the game ball to the press conference — a simultaneous reminder of the defense’s heroics and the offense it had to bail out in the first place.
Harbaugh praised the defense postgame. He praised the team’s resilience. Then, he suggested more live tackling in practice for the running backs, as if that would cure the mental mistakes that have plagued Patterson and others. Sometimes, the solution is as Patterson said himself: I gotta take care of the football. I gotta play better.
After a second straight game of security issues, his words from last week are a good place to start.